Neil Lennon On Leicester City, Captaining Celtic And Playing Under Martin O’Neill

Neil Lennon On Leicester City, Captaining Celtic And Playing Under Martin O’Neill

Part one of a two-part interview with Neil Lennon, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You started your professional career at Glenavon before moving to Manchester City. How would you reflect on your formative years in football?

“Wow, that is a great opening question because I have not been asked about that in many years.

“Glenavon was my home town club in the Irish league.

“I was only there for a short period before moving to England but I made my debut as a teenager and it was a great experience to play at big stadiums for the first time.

“Then, Manchester City signed me on a two-year YTS [Youth Training Scheme] contract which changed my life by opening my world up to full-time football and working with people from different cultures compared to my time at Glenavon working with primarily Irish players and coaches.

“Manchester is a great city and I grew as a player at the club but also as a man by living in Manchester at a young age.”

You left Manchester City for Crewe Alexandra in 1990 and that was your coming of age in many ways as you established yourself as a first-team regular for the first time. What are your main memories from your time at the club?

“It was a great experience for me even though I missed a year and a half of football while I was there with a back injury which required surgery.

“The club were great with me by supporting my rehabilitation and believing that I could make it back and kick on.

“We played some great football at the club and we had a team with lots of good players who went on to have top careers such as Danny Murphy, Rob Jones, Robbie Savage and Craig Hignett.

“We were a young group of players but we had game intelligence too and we won promotion to the Second Division (the equivalent of League One today).”

After six years at Crewe, you teamed up with Martin O’Neill for the first time at Leicester City and won promotion to the Premier League in addition to winning two League Cup trophies. Was that move, and how quickly success followed, a whirlwind for you?

“I had an opportunity to join Coventry City in the Premier League from Crewe but when I met Martin, he convinced me that joining Leicester would be the best move for my career.

“We did not get off to a great start as we struggled to win a game for a few weeks but once we clicked as a team, we never looked back.

“That was down to the quality of the team but also the man management of Martin.

“He was clear and concise in his communication with the team and he had great staff around him in John Robertson and Steve Walford.

“We ended up in the playoffs in my first season at the club and went all the way to Wembley to face Crystal Palace.

“It was a tense game and we went behind early in the first half before scoring a late equaliser in the second half. Then, we won the game in the last moments of extra time to reach the Premier League.

“Playing at Wembley and winning in such dramatic fashion was amazing. It was a dream come true to know that we were heading to the Premier League.

“The main thing was Martin and us as players was that we adapted well when we got to the Premier League. We had four top-ten finishes and reached three League Cup finals. Winning two and losing one.

“It was a fabulous time to be at Leicester and to win the playoff final and two major English trophies at Wembley just a few years after playing in League One was the stuff of dreams.

“That was a remarkable achievement and it was Martin O’Neill at the peak of his powers as a manager. I was fortunate to work with him again at Celtic when he continued that momentum again.”

Martin O’Neill became Celtic manager in 2000 on the back of Rangers comfortably winning the Scottish title in the previous season. You joined him at Celtic and within one year, you won the domestic treble together and started a spell of dominance from Celtic under his management. How do you reflect on that first season at Celtic?

“It was a privilege to work with Martin again and to join Celtic who are the team I have supported all my life.

“That first season was extraordinary considering where the club was when Martin arrived.

“I will always say that appointing Martin was one of the most significant moments in Celtic history. His arrival marked a turning point for the club after a difficult time in the 1990s

“He recruited well and he created a strong squad which it was a joy to be a part of. We never feared any opposition whether that be Rangers in the derby games or against some of the biggest teams in Europe.

“We had great players such as Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson, Paul Lambert, Lubo Moravcik and Stiliyan Petrov. Having players like that meant that we could play some great football, and winning football too.

“Those players and everyone within the squad also had a strong mentality to the point that we never thought we were beaten even in the face of adversity.

“To go and win the treble in the first season was an incredible achievement.

“So many teams at that time could not live with us. I joined Celtic at the age of 29 and it was such a fantastic period in Scotland and in Europe.

“Reaching the UEFA Cup final against Porto was a great achievement for us too but the result was a great shame because as a team, we deserved better.

“One of my main memories of that campaign was facing Liverpool away at Anfield. Martin got his tactics spot on and his man management was immense of the night.

“I had ten years working with him at Leicester and Celtic and I enjoyed every moment. It was rock n roll football – especially at Celtic — and just brilliant to be a part of.”

What are your memories of the final in Seville? Have you ever watched it back?

“In all honesty, I have never watched it back. It was a painful experience for us because we had the ability to win that final.

“We did not play as well as we could have in the first half. Martin then gave us a pep talk at halftime — nothing over the top — just a gentle reminder of our quality and how we could hurt Porto.

“Henrik was unplayable for us that night and scored two great goals but with the score at 2-2, we went to extra time with the momentum heading in our direction.

“I felt that we were growing in stature the longer the game went on but when Bobo Balde was sent off at the start of extra time, it handed the momentum back to Porto and they capitalised in the second half of extra time with a goal from Derlei which we could not recover from.”

Gordon Strachan replaced Martin O’Neill as Celtic manager in 2005 by which time you are Celtic captain. Did your leadership role grow even further when that transition occurred?

“Yeah, I would say that I did because we wanted to keep the success that we had achieved under Martin going under Gordon and he trusted me to be his leader within the dressing room and on the pitch.

“On the outside, Gordon was perceived to have big shoes to fill which he did but he did it brilliantly.

“He was a superb manager and a great guy too.

“I played under him for two years and we won the League and League Cup in his first season then followed that up with the domestic double in his second year.

“Added to that, we also reached the last sixteen of the Champions League for the first time which was a phenomenal achievement for Gordon given the results that Martin had achieved in Europe before him.

“I enjoyed both of my years working under Gordon as his captain before moving to Nottingham Forest and then Wycombe Wanderers before I retired from the game in 2008 and returned to Celtic in a coaching capacity under Gordon once more.”